Interview: Ivan Liu of Kinki Studio

For readers who didn't know already, Ivan Liu is the chief engineer and owner of Kinki Studio, a high-end value brand that launched in China in 2008. It's being globally marketed by Vinshine Audio's online boutique in Singapore. Their Ken Ng acted as our mutual translator. I proposed the same range of questions to Mr. Zhao of Denafrips but learnt that "he's far too busy fighting the current parts shortage crisis. The global semi-conductor crisis is hitting everybody now. We should all brace ourselves for more disruption and probably hyper inflation soon" is how Alvin of Vinshine put it.

At Guangzhou 2021 show setting up in all black livery.

♦ Ivan, China's involvement with high-end hifi manufacturing seems to be a lot younger than that of America, Europe or Japan. It then seems intuitive to think that your first exposure to high-end hifi must have come from the most popular import brands of the time. Could you mention specific Western or Japanese brands even models that you then encountered in local shops, trade shows or homes which impressed you? How did they shape your own notions about 'good sound', your interpretation of it and what was possible?

My first exposure to high-end hifi was probably in 1993. I was born in Guangzhou which at that time was the first and largest hifi manufacturing city of China. Even today, the most high-end products and most populous sales centers still locate there. The first brand which impressed me in Guangzhou Haiyin Electric City was the Musical Fidelity A1 integrated amplifier from the UK paired with a Philips 850 MkII CD player and KEF Q series monitors. It wasn't high-end hifi yet but really impressed me at the time. As a child I was fascinated by its natural, sweet and melodic sound. When I came into better product, if good sound couldn't be determined by quantitative or qualitative means, the other method was the blind audition.

♦ Relative to that exposure of upscale Western hifi, was there anything different to a listener like yourself who was raised in China? Did some of it require getting used to like an acquired taste? Or was all of it love at first sight? In the same vein, do you think that designing equipment for the global market today must pursue different sonic ideals than if you designed equipment purely for a Chinese audience?

Due to different economic and cultural developments, the early Chinese audiophile was mostly focused on Western high-end hifi. During the early 1990s, our domestic high-end market was completely occupied by Western brands because Chinese audio products then were still in the development and learning stages. In terms of music, from the early Hong Kong Cantopop and Taiwan's Hokkien pop to later all types of music from different countries, we first saw the rise of higher dynamics and lower frequencies, then the still current focus on more detail, fidelity and intelligibility to see that audiophile hardware improvements have become accepted and adopted for all kinds of music. Nowadays more Chinese listeners are starting to like classical music and Jazz. More exposure to international music helped them determine what suits their own tastes which had a positive effect on our domestic audio market.

Some of course still focus on unnatural low or mid frequencies. Too much bass pollutes the overall sensibility of the music and  an overly thick midrange upsets the musical balance. At Kinki Studio we believe that natural and transparent sound of high fidelity is the most fascinating. This is what defines high-end hifi. Of course high-fidelity and consumer-grade audio products are different. Consumer-grade products should be designed to cater to the regular users while high-fidelity audio needs to restore the signal as much as possible. Here I am talking about the signal, not live music. The recording process changes the live sound. So a high-fidelity amplifier should restore the signal as much as possible. For the products I design, I focus on the ideal natural sound rather than the taste of a specific group of people. All of us have very different preferences which is wonderful. As long as my designs do not violate the rules of natural sound, music is art without specific restrictions. Diversity won't be a limit to our imagination. The Chinese name of my company is actually 'Wonderful Audio' as translated from 'Jing Cai'.

♦ For your own taste and vision, what are the key audio qualities you listen for? Do they sit in a particular sequence of importance? We're all shaped and influenced by what we're exposed to. Over time, we collect more experiences so broaden our exposure. That can change or refine our ideas about what's possible and what we want for ourselves. Across your career, did some audio qualities add or drop away from your list; or did their position in your overall hierarchy change?

Taste is not only related to the living environment but also to the process of growth. In the beginning, I preferred popular music but didn't reject classical music. With age and exposure, I became more interested in classical music. I still can't really interpret the intellectual meaning of every piece of classical music I listen to but I can feel the happiness of it. I like Mozart and Mahler for example. When it comes to recording quality, I feel that the recordings from the end of the 20th century were best. Whether it is today's classical or hip-hop, the recording quality isn't as good as it was then. Or am I too demanding? I can't tell.

♦ For Kinki Studio today, can you describe the specific sound you pursue? What are the key qualities you believe define your electronics and possibly set them apart?

There is no high-end in the sound of Kinki Studio. I don't like to use big words to market our products or set our brand apart. What I pursue is the natural balance with a delicate but complete treble, extended low bass, a very clean background, high density and strong soundstaging. We also accept that we are still students of high-end audio design and manufacture. We dare not propose that we are that different from or superior to others. We are still young and see no limits in our capacity and willingness to learn and develop so we will constantly improve.

♦ To achieve your sound, what were some of the most important technical measures you had to adopt? Were there particular measurements or specifications you pursued, certain circuit topologies or parts? Did you have to discard certain earlier solutions until you hit upon a winning recipe? If so, what were some of those discarded solutions?

To achieve the ideal sound, it is necessary to do a good job on the power supply. That is fundamental. The slew rate and input/output voltage are also very important, including the layout of the PCB which governs the distributed capacitance and inductance between boards. These parameters are not necessarily visible during testing. To design a wonderful product, every detail is important. Our products don't focus on just one but all the aspects like the design of the power supply, PCB layout, parts used, measurements, specifications and circuit design. In the early days we tried many schematics including pure Class A, fully balanced and more. From these unsuccessful designs, we obtained many valuable data and developed fundamental experience and understanding to create our current products.